Did Anton Chekhov’s niece, a major Nazi film star, spy for Mother Russia during WWII? Yes and no, concludes the author of several previous works about Soviet-German conflict.
Beevor (The Fall of Berlin, 2002, etc.) begins with a startling moment in 1945. The Germans have surrendered, the war in Europe is over, and the Moscow Art Theatre is presenting The Cherry Orchard, featuring the playwright’s aging widow in her signature role of Ranyevskaya. Taking her bows, the actress sees her niece, Nazi film queen Olga Chekhova (1897–1980), waving at her from the audience. What is she doing there? Beevor then rehearses some family history and introduces us to his other characters. Prominent among them are the playwright’s nephew, Misha Chekhov, a gifted actor briefly married to Olga, and her brother, Lev Knipper, before the war a promising composer and during the war a crafty agent and trainer of Soviet alpine forces. In 1921, the divorced Olga fled the murderous Russian civil war for Berlin, her advent coinciding nicely with the rise of German cinema. Her career skyrocketed (Beevor appends a lengthy and impressive list of her films), and she even partied with Chaplin in Hollywood. But after the Nazis took power in the 1930s, Olga found herself playing a particularly unsavory role, with Hitler, Goebbels, et al., as the creepiest of costars. She struggled throughout the war to protect herself, her career, and her family, but Beevor believes she probably did not spy much in any traditional sense, though her relatively comfortable postwar life in West Germany certainly raised eyebrows. The author knows his way around the relevant archives and had access to knowledgeable folks (he interviewed one of Olga ’s Nazi lovers), but he concludes that none of this material can provide an entire answer to the question of what services Olga might have given to the Soviets.
Literate, lucent, and well researched: a fascinating glimpse into how artists respond as the world explodes around them. (44 b&w illustrations, not seen; 1 map)